WASHINGTON – When a politician says, "The only poll that counts is the one on Election Day," what does he really mean?
Translation: "I wouldn’t win if the election were held today."
Or what is a lawmaker really getting at when she says, "I plan to repurpose the budget towards a greater strategy of revenue enhancement?"
Translation: "I want to raise taxes."
Experts say the time is right for a software program that could cut through the "bull" of political jargon, much like the "Bullfighter" tool which strips business lingo from company memos, speeches and press releases.
"People are fed up. They get fire-hosed with bull every day and they are tired of it," said Brian Fugere, a consultant with Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, an international business consulting firm, which designed Bullfighter (search) and is offering the software free of charge on its Web site, www.DC.com. The site has received more than 200,000 hits since the software was introduced on June 17, Fugere said.
While the tool was inspired by the unintelligible jargon in the Enron (search) memos that emerged during the company’s bankruptcy scandal last year, Fugere said, designers have already used it to test presidents' State of the Union (search) addresses for clarity and straight-talk. The results have been surprising.
President George H.W. Bush led the pack with the most straightforward language, while current President George W. Bush came in third. President Clinton placed fifth and President Herbert Hoover “dead last,” said Fugere.
The tool acts much like a spell checker, recognizing overused and ambiguous business buzz words like "best in practice," "scalable" and "synergy." It also scores documents for clarity.
It was originally designed to help consultants at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu write more coherently, said Fugere.
"We have to clean up our own act, frankly," he said. However, "it seems it might be a useful service in the political realm, too."
A number of political operatives and experts said they agree.
"It would put everybody on their toes," said Tom King, a Democratic consultant.
"I don’t think there is any monopoly on obfuscation," King said, referring to the ability of both Democrats and Republicans to manipulate language.
"I think some of the people who have reputations of being straight-talkers — [Arizona Sen.] John McCain, for instance — once you put them through the bull-o-meter, they’re not as straight-talking as you would like to think.”
Consultant Howard Opinsky, who worked for McCain during his 2000 presidential bid, said spin used by politicians is just as bad as vague language.
Opinsky offered an example.
"When a politician says, 'The American people know that I am doing the right thing on this one,' he really means, 'I’m doing what I damn-well please.'"
Jim McLaughlin, a New York-based Republican pollster, offered a few of his own. "When they say, ‘I don’t want to go negative,' it means they are going to go negative," he said.
"When a campaign says, 'The polls don’t matter,' that means they’re down 20 or 30 percent," McLaughlin added.
Matthew Felling, an analyst for the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., said he would like to see political speech stripped of all sports metaphors.
“No' grand slams,' 'spinning wheels,' or how senator x is 'moving the goalposts,'" he said. "In an attempt to make it accessible to everyone, [sports metaphors] dilute and pervert the idea."
Felling also suggested getting rid of pop culture references like "weakest link," and the time-tested, "Where’s the beef?"
"These are just lazy ways of making headlines without saying anything of importance," he said.
But people might be surprised at what little is left over if political speech is stripped of its sheen, said Stephen Hess, political analyst for the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
"To cut to the quick might not leave much," he said. "When you bite into it, there might not be much there. Sort of like cotton candy."
Fugere said the best Bullfighter can do today is help writers improve and guide journalists and shareholders through the gobbledygook that obscures useful information.
If it were used to put politicians to the test, that would be an added bonus.
"It has completely changed my own writing style. When you put a measurement on something its funny how behavior will change," Fugere said.